Q June 1994
Controversial Producer Steve Albini saw Kurt Cobain at his best, during the recording of the band's last LP, In Utero.
"I THINK KURT WASN'T GIVEN ENOUGH CREDIT for how intelligent and how perceptive of his own dilemma he was," says Steve Albini, producer of In Utero. "He is portrayed as sort of a goofy rock music loser who ended up being famous. But I found him very conscious of his predicament: being a normal person in very unusual circumstances, as he put it."
Albini makes no claims to close friendship with Cobain, but feels that, for a fortnight in February 1993, he saw him at his best: "What surprised me was how efficient he was, how together his music and his band were. Nothing like the disorganised lacking around most bands indulge in. They were sorted out, well rehearsed, operating at peak efficiciicy. He was an easy person to work with: perceptive, capable of speaking his mind, describing what he wanted. The entire band were veterans of the studio by then but they hadn't become jaded."
The In Utero sessions fell into a period of up to 20 months after the birth of Cobain's daughter, when he was, he claimed, clear of heroin.
"I saw no evidence of drug abuse," says Albini. "The other guys in the band were touchy about it because of the past crises. They certainly didn't want to see anything like that again and I think he didn't need it then, partly out of respect for the job and partly out of respect for them."
Albini wasn't "fond" of Nirvana's music before he worked with them, but he appreciated the way Cobain made the production arrangements with him personally, rather than through intermediaries, to set up a deal that maintained Nirvana's artistic independence of the record company.
"They paid me a flat fee of $100,000 and they paid the studio themselves (a modest $17,000) rather than getting an advance off Geffen. The record company's involvement was minimal. I work this way exclusively. I feel much better about my participation because I have no vested interest in the record being popular. I wasn't part of the musical process, my job was a technical one, but I felt In Utero was a step up in terms of creativity."
Last summer, Cobain, who otherwise spoke admiringly of Albini's work, described him to Q as "very paranoid" after the producer had been quoted as criticising both Geffen and Nirvana for "softening" the album through a couple of remixes and further adjustments at the mastering stage. "I wouldn't have done that myself," he allows, "but I'm glad the changes that were made were at Nirvana's behest and not the record company's."
Cobain was fascinated by Albini's unorthodox recording technique (involving dozens of mikes "taped to the walls, the ceiling, all over the place" to pick up every nuance of sound) and stayed in touch for a while after In Utero was finished: "He really grilled me. I ended up writing out a list of mikes and how they were used, to help him set up a studio in his house. I even sorted out places for him to buy the equipment. Apart from that, I didn't have any more contact with him. I liked him, but so many people were pressing themselves on him, wanting to be his friends, I felt it would have been intrusive of me to add myself to the crowd by trying to stay in touch. A hundred people know Kurt better than I do. I was with him when he was concentrating on one thing only and this is how I found him. He honestly didn't seem at all at odds with, or uncomfortable with, what he was doing, despite the obvious nuisance aspects.
"In his personal life, he had quite a bit to contend with, and professionally the mindless masses of rock music fans he had decided to set himself apart from were pretending to appreciate his band and he obviously did not want to pander to that. Then there were the leeches, both in business terms and legally. Nirvana got hit with many trivial lawsuits: somebody who got hurt at a concert, nebulous dealings with old band members and that '70s English band also called Nirvana. People were trying to find some excuse to get a chunk of Kurt's money, most of it almost certainly shysterism."
But suicide. Did Albini have any premonition?
"It seemed like a perfectly natural thing to me. Kurt's mood was sombre when we were recording, but I think that was pretty much the case all the time. I've known people who've been that gloomy for 20 years. Even so, he was a very pleasant, likable, witty man. It was just that he never seemed to be thrilled. Except when his daughter was there. She was the one thing I saw him display real enthusiasm for. The change in him was pretty dramatic when she was around.
"I was surprised when the suicide happened but I wasn't surprised that Kurt was capable of it. I think anyone conscious of their existence has contemplated killing themselves. There's the argument that it's a coward's way out, because you should have the stringency and discipline to face your problems. But some people decide to change their situation and one of the ways of changing it is bailing out. Maybe most people who've had a life and background as difficult as Kurt's don't end up that way. Well, that's a display of fortitude I guess, but that doesn't mean Kurt's action was anything other than legitimate."